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Photo: Kati Scheid | Sea Otter Classic

Sea Otter XC short on fans, but Olympic chase takes priority

Fans had few convenient opportunities to watch the pros race at Sea Otter due to a busy event schedule and an all-out Olympic chase that's underway.

MONTEREY, California (VN) — The top cross-country pros had few distractions as they battled up the steep hills of the Sea Otter Classic’s XC Olympic (XCO) course last Thursday morning. No fans screaming in their faces. No flags waving. No hecklers, beer feeds, or clever signs. Most of the race, all they heard were the heavy breaths of their rivals or their own racing heartbeats.

Instead of holding the XCO race in the marquee spot on Saturday afternoon, like last year, Sea Otter officials scheduled this race for Thursday, when vendors were just getting started and many attendees were still working for the weekend.

Why change the schedule? Organizers wanted to offer as many UCI points as possible, which top riders are chasing to vie for a chance to race the 2020 Olympics.

Off-the-cuff reactions to this new schedule were not positive. Pivot-Stan’s team manager Kenny Wehn didn’t like how the race was no longer a chance to showcase for his riders to fans. Sabra Davison, director of the Little Bellas girl’s mountain bike camps, said her young riders would ordinarily line the course to cheer on the pros, but it was too early in the week. None of the girls were there yet.

“I’m not a fan,” said veteran pro rider Geoff Kabush (Yeti). “It’s all about the UCI points chase. It’s great that they have an HC event [in the Thursday XCO] but it took away the best spectator event for us endurance types.”

And that’s the tradeoff: Top riders are trying to earn as many UCI points as possible to bolster their chances of racing the Olympics, so the Sea Otter schedule had to shift.

It may sound esoteric, but in fact, most riders were happy to have the opportunity.

“This year, chasing UCI points is the big goal,” said Keegan Swenson (Pivot-Stan’s), who was fifth on Thursday. “It’s worth the tradeoff of not having as many fans.”

At an event like Sea Otter with a crowded schedule of races, activities, and demos, the race had to move to a less favorable time slot to put as many points as possible on the table as an HC-categorized event. That all started back in June 2018, when Sea Otter set out to improve the race experience for pros and amateurs alike.

“For years we’ve been getting complaints from our pros who aren’t Olympic pros who wanted to do a longer course,” said Jeff Frost, Sea Otter’s athlete services director.

Frost made plans to run the pro cross-country race with the amateur categories on Sunday morning. They’d race the classic 20-mile loop, taking them far away from the venue and into Fort Ord’s oak groves and tough, grassy hills. Frost hoped it would help bridge the disconnect between pro and amateur riders.

“On Sunday it goes back to the old school days of racing with amateurs, so my hope is the pros finish, they’re hanging out, amateurs are finishing behind them,” he added. “You get that old-school vibe of a cat 1 guy finishing and hanging out with Catharine Pendrel, or Emily Batty, or someone like that.”

The trouble was, the UCI didn’t take much interest in the old-school vibe. After working for months on the assumption that his race would be an HC event, Frost heard in late February that it would only be a class 3 event, the UCI’s lowest category. This meant that top pros chasing Olympic berths, riders like UCI world champion Kate Courtney or under-23 star Christopher Blevins, would likely skip Sea Otter.

Frost got immediate feedback from riders who were concerned that the race would not offer the UCI points they needed. Sea Otter’s schedule would have to change to add a second cross-country race, an HC-category XCO event. This would be no easy feat.

“Kate Courtney and Chloe Woodruff were very supportive of us [changing the schedule]; that pushed the needle a lot,” said Frost. “I appreciated those two jumping in very positively to try and help and get Sea Otter an HC race.”

In the matter of about one week, the XCO race was scheduled for Thursday morning, one of the very few times on the calendar without significant scheduling conflicts. Unfortunately, this shifting schedule came at the expense of Sea Otter’s cyclocross race and the short-track cross-country race.

“With 200 race categories over four days, you shift something, you’ve got to move something else,” said Frost. “Plus with the expansion of people wanting to demo bikes, we needed more time on the track to let the public ride bikes, so we allocated a six-hour window on Saturday.”

Some riders like Olympic hopeful Erin Huck (CZ Racing) don’t miss the short track at all. Others, like Swenson, wish they had a chance to race in the crowd-friendly event.

“Oh yeah, for sure I love short-track here,” said Swenson’s teammate Woodruff. “I wish we were doing that on Friday.”

Frost confirmed that for 2019, the short-track would return on Saturday, and he plans to carry on with the XCO on Thursday and the long-loop XC on Sunday.

With the competing priorities of riders chasing Olympic berths, brands looking for more time to offer public demos at Sea Otter, and teams seeking primetime visibility for their racers, it isn’t easy to meet everyone’s needs over just four days at Laguna Seca.

Even Kabush, who wasn’t too keen on the schedule change, was realistic about where his races fit into the broader event.

“We’re here for the tradeshow and to see all our sponsors,” he said. “It’s always fun to get in a race or two. I definitely — not so much 7:30 a.m. start on Sunday — but I’m excited to do the big loop, it’s a fun, different event, with tactics. I’m going to say the winner on Sunday is the real Sea Otter cross-country champion.”